Are you beginning to bore everyone at conferences?

Chief executives need to remember to listen as well as talk, says Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

At a charities conference recently, I got talking to a distinguished-looking older gentleman who, it turned out, was chairman of another charity. Or rather, I tried to converse with him while he, being thoroughly accustomed to occupying positions of power, talked at me about himself.

In my time as a fundraiser, I had to become fairly well versed in the art of conversation. The keys to this are to ask the other person about themselves, express interest in their answers and seek common ground. But I've noticed that the longer you occupy a senior position in an organisation, the more you have to remind yourself not just to talk at people.

Alas, my conference buddy was beyond salvage in this respect. Holding forth on his 'home' subjects of himself, his charity and his 15 corporate chairmanships, he did not ask a single 'away' question about me or where I worked.

Trying to hurl something into the torrent to get his attention, I mentioned an impressive fact about the charity I work for. It just bounced straight off him, the juggernaut of his ego flattening it without even a moment's pause for consideration. He had, to put it simply, lost the art of conversation.

Tony Blair, in his early years as Prime Minister, was fond of quoting the ancient story of King Philip of Macedon. The king employed a servant to hit him with a pig's bladder on a stick, without warning, as a reminder that he should not get above himself. As the Blair years wore on, it was a lesson that seemed increasingly lost on him and I wonder if this fate befalls nearly everyone who lingers in positions of power.

As a charity chief executive, you answer to your trustees who, if they exercise their own power humbly, serve as a useful check on the executive. Even so, the longer you are in a leadership role, the more you ought to check yourself.

Be honest: have you begun to interrupt people too much? Do you lecture people more than you used to? Do you ask them fewer questions about themselves? Do you list your honours or qualifications after your name? Are you more convinced than ever that you are right? If you tick some of these boxes, it could be a sign of what psychologists call "narcissistic personality disorder" or "hubris syndrome".

The solution sounds easy but is hard to do well. Audit your conversational style for signs that you really are (or are not) listening. Walk the floor more to stay in touch. Build in systems to listen to your clients, staff and volunteers, such as focus groups and anonymous surveys. Say sorry when you are wrong.

If not, you will end up boring someone at a conference someday, or even worse, boring your own colleagues by telling them how interesting you are.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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